Sunday, December 28, 2008

Spam Jello

So, we're getting ready for a family holiday party, and I did a little internet sleuthing to try to confirm a jello and 7-Up recipe from my childhood that remains a favorite among my extended family. I know, I know: jello is kinda gross, and 'green jello salad' stands as a Mormon cliche, but this particular "salad" (ha!) tastes pretty good, at least as I remember it.

Having said that, many of the jello salad recipes I found online were truly horrific. I'm cool with canned fruit in Jello--seems like a natural fit--but miracle whip and cheddar cheese?

As much as that makes my stomach turn, we make lots of dishes here in America that make foreign foods like fried grasshoppers seem downright appetizing (blended hot dog, processed cheese, mayo and pickle sandwich, anyone?). But even the wildest gross-out songs from my childhood could not have prepared me for this:

Spam Jello

1 large box lemon or lime Jello
1 large can Spam
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup ice cold water
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup relish; pickle, corn, etc.
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
Tabasco to taste

And, no, it's not a joke, near as I can tell. Oh well, I guess someone deserves points for combining the two biggest cliche foods of all time: spam and green jello. Hungry anyone?

(Photo courtesy of ash2276 on Flickr; available at:

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Children's Museum

We visited the children’s museum in Salt Lake City today, and I was amazed at how far museums have come since I was a kid. Everything’s hands-on now, interactive. There’s something for everyone. Having said that, I left feeling, well, kind of sorry for today’s kids, and for today’s parents who feel compelled to run around and fill every minute of their kids’ schedules with “meaningful” activities.

The museum was crowded, full of kids of all sizes, jostling for the chance to do this or that activity, with a seemingly equal number of decidedly bored-looking parents and grandparents tailing them around.

But what really struck me was the artificialness of it all. Sure there were some great science-type experiences for the kids upstairs, but downstairs it was all plastic and pretend.

For example, they had an elaborate water play-type section designed to show kids how dams and water currents work. When I was a child, we had those too: we called them “gutters,” “creeks,” and “irrigation ditches,” and they taught us about dams, currents, and erosion equally well, if not better, as we designed them ourselves of rocks and sticks and sand, and built and sailed our own boats on them.

Instead of fake chickens in a fake hen house, we had real chickens in a real hen house, and, get this: we collected real eggs from those hens. What a concept! And we fed real carrots to real horses too, instead of fake carrots to a fake horse, and lived in genuine fear of having our fingers nipped.

The museum had a rock wall like the ones you see in a climbing gym. As kids, poor as we were, we had to settle for real rocks, which we scampered on, over, and around, without warning signs, medical releases, or the slightest bit of “parental supervision.”

Sure, the museum had a nice pretend house and pretend shop—beyond all imagining in the days of my youth—where the most elaborate play house consisted of four walls (maybe) and a window or two. But mostly we just made things up. We made forts from hay bales or blankets or sage brush, and used rocks and sticks as stand-ins for just about everything, and somehow we got by without being bored or feeling deprived.

What ever happened to simple, unstructured play, where kids have to use their imagination and build their own fantasy worlds from whatever they have at hand? To time spent with real animals and playing in real dirt? Today’s kids seem to have lost much of that, and I wonder what it means for the adults of tomorrow.

Despite all the advances in information and technology, the kids of today seem decidedly poorer—their horizons narrower—in spite of it, and possibly because of it. Do we really need more “adventure” museums? In my experience, taking them outdoors and turning them loose seems adventure enough, and when I take my kids to the local creek or pond or into the hills, they laugh, and pretend, and explore, and I never hear them complain about being bored.

None of these insights are terribly new or revolutionary—many of them have been summarized brilliantly in the book “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv (a similar cultural critique lies at the heart of Wall-E, which we watched tonight as a family)—but they struck me with particular force today, as I wandered around the Discovery Children’s Museum, which charges $8.50 a person for the chance to pretend to do things kids used to do for real.

(If you haven’t read the Louv book, you should. He also maintains a website: with a link to his blog: Photo courtesy of blessed1with8 on Flickr; available at

Woods on a Snowy Evening

Another experiment with our point-and-shoot digital camera, this one taken on a drive home during a snowstorm as night fell on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Confessions of an OCD Baker

As anyone who knows me well can attest, I can be just a wee bit compulsive about certain things. Take those little, white, umbilical cord-looking thingies inside of an egg, for example. This evening, I was making cheesecake for a holiday party, and, at midnight, I found myself scraping out those little goobers one at a time before I could bear putting the eggs in the cake batter.

I just can’t stand the thought of forking off a piece of chocolate cheesecake and getting a dangly umbilical cord as a bonus prize, no matter how small. (Okay, I know they aren’t umbilicial cords—Wikipedia tells me they are called “chalaza”—but they’re still gross.)

But why, you may ask. What’s the big deal? I dunno. That’s the thing about obsessions and compulsions. You can’t ask why. As my daughter Sarah likes to say, “It’s not my fault. Jesus just made me that way.”

(Photo courtesy of Whateverthing on Flickr; available at:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Magic of Snow

What explains the magic of snow?

Today it snowed for hours and then, just as dusk began to fall, I glimpsed the line of hills to our east, the first sign of the storm lifting. Heading outside with the shovel, the sky remained an unbroken gray, and then, almost imperceptibly, a change: a hint of blue, first high and faint, then spreading slowly from the west like paint on a wet canvas.

Falling snow is the stuff of poetry, from Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep …”) to this little ditty by the gifted haiku poet John Stevenson: snowy night / sometimes you can’t be / quiet enough.

Returning to my question, I think the magic of snow lies in its power to transform. Like the wave of a magician’s wand, a snowstorm—in an instant—transforms an ordinary landscape into something different, mysterious, and unfamiliar. Colors fade and lines blur. Sounds recede as well, swallowed up in the whirling dance of ice crystals. Somber. Meditative. Lovely. The larger and softer the flakes, the more dramatic the effect.

I suspect too that part of the magic lies in how quickly it fades. Almost a soon as the snow stops, the snow falls from the branches, restoring the familiar, winter shapes of trees. The horizon returns, along with the noise of traffic, and I’m left cold, scraping ice from the front walk with an old shovel.

(Photo courtesy of algo on Flickr; available at:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Quote Book for Kids

As parents, there are plenty of things we don't do or we get wrong. One thing we've done right is to keep a book of "kid quotes"--all the funny, insightful, and interesting things they say--a practice we started when our first child, Jordan, was about a year old. We keep the book in the living room where we can grab it quickly and jot something down before we forget.

The quote book has grown over the years, and continues to provide fodder for the Christmas newsletter as well as entertainment for the kids and a lot of great memories.

Since this is the stuff of newsletters, some of you may have heard these before, but here are some classic examples:

Jordan to Mommy (at age 3): "Do you love me all the time, even when you're mad at me? I love you all the time, even when I'm mad at you."

Jordan (age 3): "Does Jesus like that police officers have guns?"

Daddy (putting on a black stocking cap): "Do I look like a bank robber?!" Sarah (age 3 and looking a little scared): "Bank robbers are nice to their kids, and they love their kids, and they catch butterflies, and put 'em in their nest."

Sarah (age 3), a "Little Mermaid" fan, explaining why she suddenly had to get out of the bath: "Because Ursula turned me into a human."

After Jordan (age 5) temporarily traded four of his toys for four of his friend's Pokemon cards, the cards found their way into his pants pocket and, ultimately, the wahsh. When we told Jordan he would need to use his allowance money to buy new, replacement cards, he said, "Let's just flatten them out and tell him not to worry about it."

Sarah (age 3), trying to get around our newly instituted rules that kids can't watch T.V. until their beds are made: "I maked my bed the way I wanted it."

One night I handed Sarah a sippy cup with only a little bit of old water in it. She took one sip, handed it back to me, and announced: "This tastes like Jordan's breath."

One evening over dinner Sarah announced that "When I get older, I want ballet." When asked whether she wanted to watch ballet or take ballet," she replied, "I want to take over ballet."

Dad to Jordan (age 6): "I think Mommy likes your (Christmas) cards as much as presents." Jordan: "Dad, can I tell you something? I like presents more than cards."

Sarah (age 4) to a then-expectant Mommy: "Does the baby swing on your bones?"

Sarah compliments: "Mommy, your veins are my favorite color." "Grandma: I think you were beautiful before you were a grandma."

Sarah to Jordan: "You can't judge a cookie by the way it looks."

Jordan (age 6), after seeing nude sculptures at the Smithsonian: "Those statues are immodest. Let's get out of this unholy place!"

Sarah, during a late night argument with her mother: "Mommy, you have beautiful ears, but they don't work very well."

Sarah (age 6), describing an airplane trip from Maryland to Utah: "I saw heaven with my own eyes, but I didn't see any angels. They must've been out to lunch or something."

Mary, still learning her numbers at age 3: "I want two of them," she announced this morning about some chocolate covered raisins, "six and five." Daddy: "How old are you, Mary?" Mary: "Twenty-five."

Mary, after getting a whiff of Daddy's cologne: "Daddy, you smell like a recipe."

Sarah, defending Dr. Phil: "Where would all those angry people go without Dr. Phil?"

Mary (still 3) upon feeling Daddy's hairy legs: "It's like Nar-ni-na (Narnia)."

Mary: "Daddy, why does Jesus wear a white dress?"

Mary (4) was acting out a fairy tale with Sarah when she called herself "Rapunza." When Sarah corrected her, she replied, "I know it's Rapunzel, but I call her Rapunza 'cause I speak French."

In response to the question "What gift would you like to give to the Christ child this year?" Mary replied, "A cookie."

Fun stuff. So, if you haven't been keeping your own little "book of quotes" you should. They grow up far too fast.

(Photo courtesy of Ti.Mo on Flickr; available at:

Monday, December 8, 2008

Miracle of the Gulls

If you’re Mormon, you probably grew up, as I did, hearing the story of the “Miracle of the Gulls,” in which the Mormon pioneers faced starvation as hordes of locusts devoured their crops in June 1848, less than a year after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. The story has an Old Testament quality to it, with seagulls darkening the skies, descending en masse, devouring locusts (actually a kind of katydid called a “Mormon Cricket”) until they puked (literally), and then going back for more. When the crickets were gone—and the miracle accomplished—the seagulls left. In commemoration of this event, the Utah legislature made the California Gull the State Bird and imposed a criminal fine for anyone caught killing one. The Church also erected a monument on Temple Square that stands today with a pair of gilded gulls atop a tall, granite pillar.

Raised with that image of the event burned into my consciousness, it troubled me to discover, in my late twenties, that the story had grown in the telling. A Mormon scholar and professor of history at Brigham Young University named William G. Hartley did some research and found that only a few of the journals from that period recorded the event at all, and those that did referenced it in decidedly more mundane terms, recognizing the hand of providence less in the appearance of seagulls in isolation and more as one piece of a broader story of survival and eventual prosperity (something along the lines of “Some seagulls came and they helped, thank the Lord”). So, while the seagulls didn’t wipe out the crickets in one fell swoop, they did—doing what seagulls normally do—play a role in saving the pioneers’ crops and, as a result, helped save the pioneers too. That version, however, lacked the drama to hold much popular appeal, and so, over the years, the story morphed into the Hollywood version I learned growing up.

To my mind, the story and the way it’s evolved over the years raise important questions. For example, if we take Professor Hartley’s version of the story as the correct one, what does it say about God and nature of miracles?

The skeptic will no doubt jump in at this point and say, “Professor Hartley’s research just confirms that religion is a lot of hooey. Things happen according to natural law and these weak minded types, desperate to find God in everything, wildly exaggerate an ordinary occurrence to persuade others to drink the Kool-Aid.” But that’s not the lesson Professor Hartley took from his research, and it’s not the lesson I take from it either.

If the “true” story of the seagulls suggests anything to me, it suggests we need to broaden our sense of the miraculous, to recognize the hand of God in all things, and not merely the inexplicable. As with those early journal writers, the pioneer miracle strikes me as more about survival than seagulls—that a group of people could plunk themselves down in the middle of nowhere with nothing but what they dragged in wagons and handcarts over thousands of miles and survive a series of harsh winters in an unfamiliar land. That they endured says a lot about their own fortitude, sense of purpose, and spirit of cooperation. It also speaks to miracles in the form of help from Native Americans, winter snowpack in the high mountains to the East (providing a source of water during summers hot and dry), sego lilies (an edible bulb), native fish (harvested in great numbers by the early settlers), and, yes, seagulls.

Oh, I believe in the miracle of the gulls alright, and I don’t care whether they blackened the sky with their wings and ate every last cricket. Seagulls are scavengers to be sure, petty thugs of the garbage dump, but they are also beautiful, elegant creatures, white against the sky, embracing the wind with wide outstretched wings. Isn’t it miraculous enough that, in doing ‘what seagulls do,’ they helped the pioneers survive?

And isn’t life itself the greatest miracle of all? Here we sit on a tiny pin prick, one small speck in an infinite universe, pinched in a narrow band—a thin shell—between the fire below and the icy void of space. Our lungs burn oxygen, our cells burn energy from the sun, and we move and breathe and love and laugh. Isn’t it amazing?

Why do we long so for a God who parts the Red Sea or sends seagulls without number to do things seagulls don’t ordinarily do? Why do we have to dress everything up in the mystical? The God I know works in ordinary ways, no less miraculous for being “ordinary.” Shouldn’t we thank God for the countless miracles of our existence, for each day, for each breath? He sends rain, as the scriptures say, on the “just and the unjust,” and the rain is a miracle. He sends friends and family to love us, and that love is a miracle. He gives us strength to endure and that strength is a miracle. Yes, I believe in miracles.

(Photo courtesy of thebugs on Flickr, available at:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Small Town Diner

Today I took my son to a diner in the small town where I was born, the kind where the waitresses still take and deliver your order at the car if you turn your lights on. We chose to go inside instead, and sat on round stools at the main counter (you know the kind). We ordered hamburgers and milkshakes and toyed with the old juke box as a few late season flies buzzed slowly around the room.

The food came in due time. My burger was decent, the fries overcooked, and the shake wasn’t chocolately enough, but it all somehow tasted better because it reminded me of home, and family, and the carefree days of childhood.

(Photo courtesy of fotoedge on Flickr; available at:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Yin and Yang of Yardwork

Last week a strong north wind blew leaves from all over the neighborhood into our yard. And so I’m raking them up today, loading them into the wheelbarrow, and piling them into the garden.

Recently I’ve been struck by the tensions of yard and garden work, the apparent contradictions. Today I water and fertilize this tree; tomorrow I prune it. Today I carefully plant the plants I like; tomorrow I violently uproot the ones I don’t. I kill myself getting the grass to grow healthy and strong, so I can cut it more frequently and wonder what to do with all the clippings.

I recall a monologue by Garrison Keillor about dandelions. After describing his failed efforts to control them (coupled with trouble nurturing domesticated flowers), he concludes: “I’ve started to wonder if we’re on the wrong side.”

Dandelions excepted, there’s a rough kind of balance there, don’t you think? The push and pull, the yin and yang of yard and garden. With some hard work and patience it all kind of balances out in the end. Harmony ... or at least a nervous truce between warring sides, which brings me back to my neighbors’ leaves.

I’m not a big fan of raking, generally, or of stuff blown in from neighboring yards, but my yard is new and leaves are few, and fallen leaves make a good mulch that offers nitrogen and other essential nutrients for next year’s vegetable garden. Besides, the wind did half the work, blowing all that nitrogen from the four corners of the neighborhood and piling it up neatly by the front walk … like so much manna, from Heaven. Bring it on.

(Photo courtesy of calderbrun on Flickr: available at

Monday, December 1, 2008

Photo Fun

While the kids were waiting to see Santa at the Centerville City park last night, I had fun playing around with our point-and-shoot digital, capturing the Christmas lights in a unusual way. (Becky just sighed and rolled her eyes.)

This is just one example. I'll upload a few more to my Flickr folder tomorrow. (You can access that by clicking the photo of the goblin statue with the funny nose at right). Makes for some interesting abstracts.

An Unnatural Sweetness

A recent blood test confirmed that I have insulin resistance. So, while my body continues to produce the insulin necessary to convert sugars into energy the body can use, my muscle tissues have become “resistant” to insulin, leaving too much of the stuff—a caustic (if essential) chemical—circulating in my blood. If not treated, the condition will almost certainly lead to Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, with all the attendant consequences. Fun stuff.

All this talk of sugar got me thinking about artificial sweeteners. Michael Pollan posits—and others have as well—that today’s epidemic of insulin resistance and adult-onset diabetes may have something to do with Americans’ particular fondness for high fructose corn syrup—think sodas, candies, and just about everything else sweet these days—and refined carbohydrates (which the body converts to even more sugar) coupled with an appalling lack of exercise. All that blood sugar has to go somewhere, and, if it isn’t burned off through exercise, it just floats around and causes trouble. So, given my bad eating habits and appalling lack of exercise, a diagnosis of insulin resistance comes as no surprise.

Compare that situation to the one faced by our ancestors, who were lucky to find anything sweet to eat, and, if they did, likely ate it with all the fiber and other good stuff included—fiber that would naturally moderate the ups and downs of blood sugar, sugar that would likely have been burned off in any event over the course of a hard day’s labor. Even natural sugars like those found in a glass of orange juice would never have been consumed in any great quantity as recently as my grandmother’s day, when, as a girl in Holland, a single orange was viewed as a luxury, an extravagance, and each bite savored.

But this “unnatural sweetness” problem is broader than diet, isn’t it? It seems to me that we’ve made just about everything unnaturally sweet. Take contemporary notions of beauty for example, where the fashion, make-up, and plastic surgery industries have sold us on an artificial notion of beauty—impossibly skinny models with perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect lips and playboy bunny breasts. Is it any wonder that a teenage girl, beautiful in her own way, looks in the mirror and gets depressed? Why anorexia and bulimia run rampant? (If you haven’t seen this video, you should:

And it isn’t just the girls who fall prey, as the recent flood of ads for products promoting hair growth, muscle-building, and male “performance enhancements” make painfully clear. (Just shoot me if I have to sit through another Cialis commercial.)

Apparently, reality is too dull, too bland, so why not sweeten it up?

It’s the same everywhere I look. Drugs and alcohol? Sweeteners. Step on those pleasure receptors, baby, no need for natural highs. Video games? Who needs saber-toothed tigers to give one an adrenaline rush? Pornography? Every fantasy at one’s finger tips (for a fee). But it’s all ghastly pink cotton-candy in the end, isn’t it, and does it really deliver as promised? A short term fix, to be sure, but does it linger?

Will we reach a day—if we haven’t already—where we no longer take pleasure in the simple joys of life: the sweetness of an apple, fresh from the tree? a sunrise? a smile? a warm hello? I hope not.

Life can be sweet in a simple, earthy sort of way. I just hope we don’t sugar coat everything to the point that we can no longer savor it.